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Rabbi Ezray - Yom Kippur: The Opportunity of Shmita

09/20/2021 10:21:13 AM


Rabbi Ezray

         Midrash is an extraordinary genre of Jewish literature. It takes words, stories and laws from the Torah and deepens their meaning by adding details, explanations and further stories. This interpretive act allows important questions to be explored and values to be creatively expanded. Listen to this Midrash about the moments following the creation of the first human being and you’ll understand how stories about stories create new lessons.     

This Midrash imagines God showing Adam around the Garden of Eden.  God says, “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are. I created it all for your sake. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world.  For if you do, there will be no one to repair it.” No one.

         This Midrash takes the Creation story and drives home both wonder and awe at our amazing world and the responsibility we have to safeguard it. “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are.” God then leaves the story. “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world. For if you do, there will be no one to repair it.” Now it is up to us–ha’kol talui banu–it is up to us. The Midrash causes us to imagine ourselves with God being lead around the garden. The message touches a cord in our souls–jolting us to join in holding creation with awe and understanding the impact of our behavior on the environment. 

         Midrash needs to be ongoing.  We add our voices, and we create new stories and new sacred texts. What would your Midrash be at this moment in time as you imagine God and Adam–or us­-looking at nature?  Picture God–however it is that you might understand God–leading you around the Garden. What would God say?  Let’s write our own Midrashim this year.

         One Midrash I imagine is the God does not speak at all. Building on places in the Talmud where God witnesses terrible human evil­-but having granted humans freedom–God cannot intervene. All God can do is weep. One text in the Talmud imagines God’s tears filling the heavens. In this Midrash God simply weeps–inconsolable at damage we have created. There are no words. I know many of you feel those tears.  

         Or perhaps, the Midrash you would write imagines that God is fiery and angry, building on the images in the Prophets of Divine anger as a response to human behavior. I picture God angrily admonishing: “What have you done! You have devasted the precious environment with which I entrusted you–and the consequences ripple in ways you are seeing every day­-and in ways you cannot imagine. Think of lives lost, health impacted, majestic forests and seas destroyed, refugees created­-yet you closed your eyes! You chose comfort and profit over responsibility!” I know many of you feel that anger as well.

         And maybe the Midrash to write at this moment is God reminding us that it not too late. Always the wise educator, God says, “Use your wisdom, creativity and passion. You have the ability to grow and change. So many of you have changed in so many ways regarding environmental responsibility. And those changes are extraordinary. Keep at it! Treasure the precious world I have given you. Innovate. Create new solutions. Let this be a watershed moment.”

         Maybe all three Midrashim sit on the same page. 

         Midrash acknowledges emotions and spurs action. Let me know the Midrash you would write. I imagine every Midrash will embrace the High Holiday theme of teshuvah–recognizing where we have missed the mark. Our awareness leads us to change our behavior and pursue policies that protect this precious Earth. We weave our teshuvah together with the Jewish imperative to care for the Earth. Let’s explore that imperative. Judaism’s environmental ethic stems from the belief that the world is not ours. We are merely guardians of an earth entrusted to us by God.  Go back to the Creation story. The instructions given to Adam and us regarding the Earth teach that our job is l’av’da u’l’sham’ra–to serve it and to guard it.  These words reflect responsibility and humility, caring and protecting. Few moral principles have been forgotten more often and more disastrously. I can think of none more important at this moment.

         The belief that the Earth is God’s, and we are the Earth’s guardians is driven home by a concept that occurs this year. 5782 is a shmita year. Shmita occurs every seven years and during that year the land lies fallow. Imagine that–we stop all work connected to planting and harvesting. Shmita literally means ‘release.’ We release the land from our ownership­-proclaiming that the land is not ours­-but that it belongs to God. You eat whatever grows naturally and are required to open your fields to all who need food to come and partake. Not only is the land released, but debts are forgiven and released during the shmita year. Shmita is essentially a reboot–giving the land a chance to rejuvenate from overuse­-allowing us to appreciate the land in ways we never would have had we remained busy planting and harvesting–while economic inequity is addressed. That 5782 is a shmita year is prescient. We need the message of shmita to safeguard our future.

          Shmita calls upon us to hold nature with awe and reverence. Shabbat’s weekly call to cease creating is magnified during shmita which commands cessation for an entire year. When you stop interfering with nature–you simply appreciate it. That ethic is what pulled me to become Shabbat observant. The power of a day when we stop creating­-interfering with nature results in appreciating nature as part of the rhythm of life.  

         This summer, before the fires, Mimi and I went to Lake Tahoe and hiked each day. We marveled at the majesty of nature. We felt what the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: “[It] staggers us when we stumble upon something magnitudes greater than our finite minds. Aspects of the natural world–towering mountains or tempestuous seas, a dark forest or a blinding desert,” bring us to a stare of awe and reverence.

         5782 being a shmita year calls upon us to deepen awe and majesty. Deepen your awareness of all of nature’s glory–its details and nuances. Appreciate the ripples of the water, the pebbles on the shore, the blue sky, the myriad varieties of birds, insects, and animals. Feel the soil. Watch the sun. Use shmita to spur awe and reverence. When the ancient farmers took a year and didn’t harvest, I imagine the experience of witnessing an entire year-long cycle of nature close up, and with the time to focus, caused them to see rhythms, details and regeneration they may have previously overlooked.  It expanded awe and drove home nes–the concept of miracle. Scientist Kate Marvel wrote: “I am a scientist, so I believe in miracles. I live on one.” Shmita opens our souls to the mystery and majesty of creation and reminds us to treat our planet like the miracle that it is.  

         When we see ourselves as guardians of God’s earth, that creates an ethical imperative demanding that we not destroy or abuse. Vaclav Havel writes: “I believe that we have little chance of averting an environmental catastrophe unless we recognize that we are not the masters of Being, but only a part of Being.”

         Our actions matter.  Here is another Midrash­-the famous story Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai tells about a group of travelers on a ship at sea. One passenger inexplicably takes out a drill and begins boring a hole beneath his seat. The other travelers are stunned: “What do you think you’re doing?!” He replies, “I’m just drilling under my own seat–what difference does it make to you?” They respond: “Don’t you get it? When the water comes in it will flood the ship for all of us!”

         The boat is the Earth. Everyone in the world is a passenger on the boat. We are all connected. One person or nation’s actions can jeopardize the safety and security of everyone else. We are drilling holes in the boat. We are watching as others drill them. There is no question about the impact of our actions on the environment. We are witnessing it each and every day. Ours is the responsibility to shift our direction and stop the ship from sinking.

         Every generation has a great work to which it is called. The work of this generation is to stop exploitation and destruction of our Earth for convenience or profit. We are called to use our wisdom, creativity, and passion to repair and change. We need to do this for ourselves, our world, our children, and our descendants. I stay awake at night knowing we are failing our children and our descendants. We have neglected, polluted, and abused the environment in unfathomable ways. The impacts ripple. We need to do teshuvah. As we hit our chests, add to the list of things for which we have missed the mark when it comes to our environmental responsibilities:

For the sin we have committed by despoiling the earth. 

For the sin we have committed by acting as if the earth is ours to exploit.

For the sin we have committed by inaction. 

         Awareness and verbalizing spur us to act. Shmita provides the opportunity to re-imagine and reset. We commit ourselves with every fiber of our being to safeguarding the gift that God has given us.

         Commitment to safeguarding the environment has the potential to unite us-crossing political divides. We can agree that we must reduce the emissions from fossil fuels that spew into the atmosphere. We can agree that we must cease polluting our water. We can agree that our choices have the potential to shift the tide. This moment calls for us to urgently step up our efforts. There have been moments in history where tides have turned–be it advancing civil rights, saving Soviet Jews, creating the State of Israel, space travel. As Herzl said, “If you will it – it is no dream.” Make personal commitments that will ripple out and up. 

         Fight for change. I am inspired and emboldened by the policies that are beginning to be enacted. Explore and be part of the work of our reconstituted Environmental Action Committee and we’ll coalesce around meaningful activism where together we will lift up our voices and act.

         We can find the will to focus on clean energy. 

         We will create shifts in infrastructure that will be game changers.  

         We will invest in innovations that will make a difference. Did you read about how large companies dependent on shipping have called on the world’s largest container ship manufactured to build ships running on clean energy? They demanded change and succeeded! Ambitious goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved. We can we shift to cleaner forms of energy. It takes will and hard work.

         People in our community are leaders in creating change. I mentioned our congregant Andy Karsner at Rosh Hashana who gave his oldest daughter Caroline the middle name Tikvah–Hope.  Andy recently got elected to the Exxon Board of Directors to drive policies that protect the environment. A couple years ago David Arfin, who will help head up our Environmental Action Committee shared about the work he has done in India helping to create solar ovens in individual homes that had been using diesel fuel which not only hurt the environment, but also sickened the families. We have the creativity, innovation, and passion to address this issue. Let’s rally around our environmental ethic and create a surge of energy and activism that makes a difference.

         Our collective voice and individual actions catalyze change. Support policies, candidates, and legislation that takes these issues seriously! Press elected officials to take real action. Agitate and advocate. Explore and help envision the direction of our Environmental Action committee which will build on previous efforts that brought our values to life. Learn about Jewish organizations like HAZON and Dayenu which will guide and teach us.

         Be part of a culture shift–a shift in consciousness that emanates up and out as you stretch yourself into areas you may have resisted making change. Each individual action helps create a social environment encouraging change. Don’t say, “I’m just one person–what difference can I make?” Each action reminds us that we are not powerless. Awareness and action connect us to advocacy. Stretch yourself into areas where you know you can do more–but somehow have not yet done it: be passionate in saving water, turn off faucets and lights, make thoughtful decisions about everything your purchase–cars and appliances. Compost. Reduce plastic. Plant trees and gardens. The power of shmita is that it inspires the behaviors that drive home that we are guardians of the world. Let it speak to you!

         The great Rabbi Choni in the 1st Century saw an old man planting a tree and he was puzzled. He asked, “Old man­-why are you planting a tree whose fruit you will not eat?” The old man replied, “Just as my ancestors planted trees for me to use–I now plant trees for my descendants.” Environmental activism is for our children and our children’s children. We need to think about the world we are leaving them. Environmentalist David Brower once said: “Environmentalists may make meddlesome neighbors, but they make great ancestors.” Let’s be good ancestors! Ha’davar talui banu–The matter depends on us. We owe it to ourselves, the world, our children, and all who come after them.  G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782